3. Light Glyphs: Sophie Mayer
Sophie Mayer has six collections of poetry, several chapbooks and has appeared in and edited numerous anthologies, in addition to which she is consistently writing some of the best film criticism around. In 2009, Mayer’s The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love provided one of the first scholarly accounts of Potter’s unique and challenging work in film. More recently in 2015, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema arrived, offering a much overdue and masterful exploration of what has come to constitute the active counter tradition of feminist cinema and its innovation. From out of the dialogues between feminist thinking, the exclusionary and insidious politics of representation, and the poetics of film that in turn question film in and as poetry, Mayer’s own collections of poetry have continued to pierce and problematize.
Her poems are drawn to tensions between the corporeal and the conceptual, between the body and its language; these are spaces, at once vulnerable and violent, that Mayer’s poetry returns to with sharp intelligence. On top of which, her poems are often shot through with dark wit or mischievous humour. Able to communicate nuanced readings of the body and its experiences, her poetry manages to successfully challenge and express the intellect without ever renouncing physicality and its embodied attentions…or perhaps, more perceptively, refuses any such polarity. This is then added to Mayer’s scholarly fluency in film, creating a body (and it is emphatically a body) of poetry that examines text and screen in the politics of our own personal encounters.
In a recent interview, concerning the intersections between film and poetry, you suggested that there is:
a resistance to connections between poetry and cinema in the UK in anything other than an almost-music video form, but the feminists in each community share so many concerns about the limits of conventional language and the excitement of experiment that I want to be a mediator, rather than focus on one form.
I recognize the ‘almost-music video’ approach: so often a painful exercise in literalism, where metaphors are visualized and a self consciously ‘poetic’ aesthetic is invoked as opposed to an active poetics. However, as you detail in your essay ‘Cinema mon Amour: How British Poetry Fell in Love with Film’, there are poets incorporating cinema in ways that clearly resist this narrative. Are there any contemporary British poets and filmmakers you feel are particularly engaged in this dialogue? If so, what is it that interests you about them?
With the increase in artist-filmmakers producing feature-length films, there has been an incredible flowering of awareness about the possibilities of bringing film and poetry together: John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses and The Stuart Hall Project and Sarah Turner’s Public House stand out for me. Interestingly, in both The Stuart Hall Project and Public House, William Blake’s poetics are to the fore. The revival of interest in Blake as a visual poet or poet-artist, as someone for whom verbal and visual forms were inextricable, is incredibly important to both film and poetry cultures in the UK. Both Akomfrah and Turner are committed to a liberatory politics similar to Blake’s, one that is both grassroots and ecstatic.
That’s what interests me in hybrid work: when poetry explores and draws on cinema’s collective and active spectatorship; and when film engages poetry’s tradition of apostrophe and of formal innovation. There’s a temptation for each form to mimic or be drawn to the most mainstream and obvious iteration of the other; but when, for example, Redell Olsen recuts early documentary footage of commercial lacemakers and writes in response to both the movement of the lacemakers’ bodies and the movement across the cuts in the film (in Film Poems), that is a thrilling expansion of the possibilities of both forms, and one that also draws attention to the forgotten, obscured and under-seen.
I’m hoping that the incredible box set, curated by Sarah Neely, of the work of Margaret Tait will follow up on the amazing work done by Peter Todd in drawing attention to Tait’s utterly unique body of work – and its connections to many threads in post-war British arts. While Tait died in 1999, the persistence, revival and recovery of her work makes it very much of the present – not least that the revival belongs both to work by the Scottish poetry community and the British film community.
How significant do you believe the London Filmmakers Co-op was (and perhaps is, in its influence) in considering the experimentation between British poetry and film? As ‘Cinema mon Amour’ did not look to address this question, I was interested in whether this was a conscious choice made in resistance to certain patriarchal histories of the avant-garde?
As From Reel to Real: Women, Feminism and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative showed (this past weekend at Tate Modern), it is indeed the histories, and not the history, that is patriarchal. Women were deeply involved in the Co-op, starting in the 1970s with Gill Eatherley, Annabel Nicolson and Sally Potter (whose later feature-length works I do discuss in the essay), as well as Lis Rhodes, Tina Keane, Jayne Parker, Nina Danino, Tania and Alia Syed, Sandra Lahire, Sarah Pucill, Sarah Turner (whose new feature Public House I mention above), Ruth Novaczek, Cordelia Swann, Vanda Carter and more. Many of these women were also involved with Four Corners, and/or with the distribution co-ops Circles and Cinema of Women. But they have been written out of histories of British artists’ film and video, absolutely.
The essay was written for a history of British and Irish poetry, so my focus was on the literature and orature of poetry, as it responded to film and was responded to in film, rather than on the complex discussion of film’s own poetics and the definition of a filmpoem (or poemfilm). The word ‘poetic’ is used extremely loosely to refer to any film that does not subscribe to mainstream aesthetics (and thus uses ‘poetic’ to mean some insidious, reductively Romantic notion somewhere between non-linear, pastoral, lyric, imagistic, etc.) In more rigorous ways, avant-garde filmmakers have sought to loosen the strictures of mainstream film ‘grammar’ (particularly influenced by film semiotics), for example through the structuralism that was the LFMC’s initial credo.
There is definitely more research and writing to be done on parallel trends in experimental poetry and experimental film, but my essay focused on where the two came together in a single text – and I tried to focus on film work that would be readily available to readers approaching the question of film and poetry from the poetry side. I wish I’d had the opportunity to talk, for example, about Lahire’s 16mm black and white film ‘Lady Lazarus,’ an invocation and summoning of Plath and her poetry.
In writing for Sight & Sound, you have consistently sought to combat what you have called the ‘myth of scarcity’ in discussing female filmmakers. You have also appeared in the Shearsman poetry anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women, a book that dispels this ‘myth of scarcity’ in a poetic context. How do you feel your experience of film and poetry communities compare in supporting under-represented identities?
I’m taking the phrase the ‘myth of scarcity’ from an article by the poet Jill McDonagh that appeared on VIDA, titled ‘Believing in Plenty.’ The comment you quote in q.1 could equally refer to the way in which feminist artists are brought together across the boundaries between media and practices by this drive toward believing in plenty. Feminist-oriented experimental poetry spaces such as POLYply were also multimedia, screening films by American poet-filmmaker Abigail Child (and one of the leading theorists of feminist filmpoetics), for example.
There’s no homogenous “film” or “poetry” community: there are different actions and movements at different times in each community, and I’m most interested in where they cross over, or where feminist community formations trump those around an artform or genre. I grew up in zine culture, where verbal, visual and sonic arts moved in alignment and hybridised with each other, and I see that returning in contemporary projects such as gal-dem.
Aside from swiftly buying your new book Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, what advice would you give to people looking to read or see more work that explores experimentation alongside, or inseparable from, contemporary feminism? Could you maybe explain a bit about the role of Club Des Femmes?
Club des Femmes is a queer feminist film curation collective based in London, founded in 2007 by Selina Robertson and Sarah Wood, who are both programmers and filmmakers. It emerged from their passion for feminist experimental cinema (and the collective and discursive ways in which it was made), and their frustration at a lack of spaces in which it could be screened in context and conversation.
Over nearly a decade, Club des Femmes has been part of a huge shift towards communitarian curation (partially enabled by digital projection) with an emphasis on foregrounding alternative and experimental cinema within event-based programming. There are new queer film festivals such as FRINGE! (London), SQIFF and GLITCH! (both Glasgow), as well as spaces like Liverpool Small Cinema, which is curated by a collective including Elsewhere Cinema, which programmed 58%, foregrounding films by women, trans and non-binary filmmakers. LUX and Cinenova, which distribute experimental and feminist films respectively, have just moved to a new venue with a screening space. So I think this is an incredibly exciting moment for people to access films outside the mainstream.
In addition, many intersectional feminist collectives such as gal-dem screen films as part of their events and online presence; video diaries, documentaries, music videos, animation, experimental shorts – these are a core part of the language of fourth-wave feminism, and they are often channelling the influence of all kinds of historical feminist experimentation. If you watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade, you watched a film influenced by the LA Rebellion cinema of Julie Dash, and you can see the restoration of her film Daughters of the Dust at the London Film Festival (and hopefully touring thereafter) this October.
You can also see the restoration of Lizzie Borden’s legendary feminist science fiction film Born in Flames at the same festival, which was one of Club des Femmes’ very first screenings. The words ‘experimental’ and ‘feminist’ sound challenging, but this is work that has permeated our culture.
I think you have mentioned ‘poethics’ in an interview I read somewhere…I was wondering – given your contribution to Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot and your continued engagement with active voices of feminism, queer poetics and issues of misrepresentation (across cinema and poetry) – what your views on poetry as activism are?
Poethics is feminist poet and scholar Joan Retallack’s word; she talks about the ‘poethical wager’ in her 2003 book of the same name. Ethics – and activism – begin in language for me, and hence there is no poetry (or communication) that is not activism. Take citational practices, for example: whose work you foreground, how and where you name them, what gets footnoted and what doesn’t, whose work you reference/foreground/epigraph/pastiche and how. These are political acts.
Of course, they’re not the only political or ethical acts, but too often we assume a capital-P Political, both as part of a spectrum of significance with Political Poetry (generally satire or war poetry) at the top; and as part of a binary, as if there were Political Poetry and all other work were apolitical (by design). If language is political and ethical, then you can choose to ignore that, but then your work inscribes dominant politics as a matter of course.
So my activism begins at the level of the word. But I am also an avowedly activist writer, although that means different things at different times – collective editing work, collaborative writing work (with Sarah Crewe), bringing poetry into alternative spaces (like experimental feminist film screenings), teaching radical histories of poetry, reviewing and advocating for other activist writers and publications, and being activist within my own creative practice.
In Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009) you begin with a sequence entitled ‘star poems’, each is ‘after’ a film (Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 songs, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Santa). Though this initially seems like an explicit dialogue, the poems are inventively skewed. The mentioned films seem to become tonal indicators for how to enter the poetic space, rather than a more familiar ekphrastic response of about-ness…what was it that drew you to these particular films? They would make for a fascinating programme of screenings!
I wrote those poems over a decade ago, so I’m reconstructing from memory. The Gold Diggers was out of circulation for a very long time – from its initial release in 1983 until its DVD release in 2009. I was lucky enough to see it on video in 2005, when I was first researching my book on Sally Potter, and it made a very deep impression on me. I think that was the kernel of the series, which posed a question (as the film does) about the female performer as star – literally, as a light source. That visual metaphor is present in Kissed, where it refers to a spiritual experience of female sexuality, and in The Virgin Suicides, where the remembered Lisbon sisters appear to emit light. These female performers draw attention to themselves, and thus to the film as film, and to our responses to watching film – they are asterisks, textual markers as well as astronomical bodies.
I’m not a big fan of about-ness, in the sense of a narrative centred on a character or theme. What interests me about the ekphrastic is the formal challenge of moving image language from one medium to another – but even more than that, the potential for disruption. In epic poetry, ekphrastes are interruptions: a pause in a dramatic scene to look closely at a visual detail that might present a counter-narrative, prophetic insight or thematic parallel, but is also often riotously sensual and attentive to the skill of the visual artist (and thus offers parallels for the poet’s skill). It’s reflexive, hybrid and a form of poetics: not just description. Or rather, description is never just description, it’s a theory of optics, narratology, form, relation, etc.
Each of the poems begins by looking at the films’ ‘about-ness’ (9 Songs is about a straight couple having sex and listening to bands) and then asks what else there is to a film, other than a plot summary – the films I chose have a strong sense of their own reflexive use of the medium, their critique of about-ness. I love the oblique use of sound in La Niña Santa, for example, and the chaptering of 9 Songs which is really quite stringent and structuralist. All of them are (now I think about it) also films about loss, but none of them are elegiac (or in The Virgin Suicides, the masculinist elegiac is somewhat satirised); instead, they vividly summon what has been lost (which is almost always female or feminine) into presence; often, as in The English Patient, that summoning exceeds the frame that is meant to hold it – and that excess, I guess, became what fed the poems.
I find the eroticism that runs throughout many of your poems a really interesting element – one that is able to prickle with wit, but also playfully enjoy itself. Do you ever find that the ‘playful’ – as a dynamic that is restless/mobile/mutable – can speak to queerness as well as maybe a kind of Surrealism? Could eroticism be a space in poetry and film for gender and sexual fluidity to explore, and be explored by, kinds of Surrealism?
There’s a lot of terms imbricating each other here: eroticism, playfulness, queerness, Surrealism. I think they all have historied relations to one another that are complex and worth drawing out: for example, Breton’s dismissal of Cocteau from the Surrealist movement because of his sexuality.
Rosalind Krauss’ writing on Surrealism has been very influential on my critical thinking, as have the scholars of women Surrealists. The big Angels of Anarchy show at Manchester Art Gallery in 2009, which I loved, made it clear that many women (and many queer women) operated under the banner of Surrealism, often making the most inventive and persuasive work by putting gender and sexual fluidity and fantasy at the centre, like Eileen Agar or Dora Maar or Meret Oppenheimer or Frida Kahlo (although she disclaimed identification with Surrealism). So I think that those possibilities have already been realised, but have been written out of the standard histories and gallery accounts.
Angela Carter and Kathy Acker were hugely influential writers that I discovered as a teenager, and both of them were unabashed in their erotic play with literary form. And there are similar feminist erotics of form in the work of Lizzie Borden, Cheryl Dunye, Sandra Lahire, Chantal Akerman, Ulrike Ottinger, Hito Steyerl, Tejal Shah… the list goes on.
I LOVE your collection (O) (Arc, 2009), the poem ‘Silence, Singing’ was, for me, a particularly stunning beast! As quite a long poem, taking its form in fragments of prose, it plays with the essay form and though your collection mentions both Susan Howe and Anne Carson, I was wondering whether essay-films may also have had an influence on its style and rhythms?
Absolutely. But both Howe and Carson have written about film: Carson particularly about Antonioni (and particularly his lesser-known documentary work, in her essay Foam, in Decreation), and Howe about Marker, in Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker (who was a book designer as well as a filmmaker…). So the 21stcentury feminist poetic essay is already infused with the essay-film – and vice versa. One of the first essay-films is Forough Farrokhzad’s ‘Khaneh sia ast’ (‘The House is Black’), from 1962 – Farrokhzad was a poet as well as a filmmaker, and a truly revolutionary artist.
‘Silence, Singing’ is actually one of the least consciously cinematically-inflected pieces of writing I’ve done, although I think the fragmentary form, and the movement between thoughts, is definitely shaped by an immersion in the work of filmmakers such as Sarah Turner, Sarah Wood, John Akomfrah, etc. There’s only one directly filmically imagistic moment in it, and it’s quite hidden: when I’m overlaying Iphigenia and Bathsheba standing at the military camp, my internal visualisation was shaped by Michael Cacoyannis’ film Iphigenia.
The last poem in that collection, a signature poem no less (‘The Mayer’) has some of the most dizzyingly wonderful collisions: ‘Albus Einstein’s particles and Gertrude / Stein’s participles’ being a particular favourite! Film and poetry can play with time in varying ways – are there any particular poets or filmmakers that for you offer exciting new ways to experience or understand time? Apologies – I know the list could be endless…but it just seemed like the ending of (O) was significantly drawn into this question, looking into ‘this ever-present. (O) dazzle of mayhappening’.
It’s an answering (or bracketing) signature poem: the opening poem is called Sophia. So it’s definitely about enfolding and cyclicity, as the section titles of the book suggest (I Do, I Undo, I Redo). It’s a stand against time’s arrow and the insistent eschatological linearity of colonial heteropatriarchy. We need to think about this aspect of time, it’s critical – and political. It’s a theory of history as much as anything.
I love Agnès Varda walking back… back… back… surrounded by mirrors in The Beaches of Agnès (and her precise jokes with time in Cléo de 5 à 7). The spirals of time, repetition, and remembering in Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers. The incremental seriality of Inger Christensen’s It (translated by Susannah Nied). Always Coming Home and ‘A Fisherman of the Inland Sea’ by Ursula K. Le Guin. Maya Deren’s handling of space-as-time in ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ and ‘At Land’. Allison Adele Hedge Coke’s unwriting of colonial time and reinscription of indigenous (including non-human) temporalities in Blood Run.
Blood Run and It are both book-length sequences that offer cosmogonies and cosmic time, although their sequentiality is quite differently structured. Ambitious without being overbearing, generous yet rigorous: I think the feminist long poem/book-length sequence, as it works through and deconstructs both the realist novelistic narrative and the militaristic nationalist epic (going back to Howe and Carson from the previous question, but also Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine, Karthika Nair, Liz Howard, Lucas de Lima) is where the unwriting of time is at in contemporary poetry.
Are there particular poets or filmmakers that you return to for inspiration? What films or books kick-start the imagination or restore your faith in all things cine/poetic?
See above! What I like about working as a curator and critic and teacher and editor, as well as an artist, is getting to cross back through works or artists I’ve previously encountered, but from a different perspective, or framing them differently, or with a different audience. Pairing Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric with Marker’s Sans Soleil for a class this year, for example, to think about what bell hooks calls ‘black looks.’ Or screening Abigail Child’s film about Mary Shelley, A Shape of Error, with readings by Sophie Robinson and Isabel Waidner. It’s about activating the re-readings or re-encounters as much as anything.
For private sustenance, I do return frequently to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, to Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, to Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Chrystos’ In Her I Am: books I encountered in my late teens and early 20s, when I was working things out. (And Tori Amos lyrics.) I’m also always quoting Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (it’s the epigraph to (O) ).
After writing Political Animals, which discusses over 500 films, my relationship to cinema has changed somewhat – there’s a certain fatigue, particularly with mainstream cinema. Probably the film I’ve rewatched most from the films I talk about there is Belle (Amma Asante), but it was also a cue to revisit films I’d seen at festivals and half-remembered like The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves. Festivals and curated programmes are where I do a lot of my viewing now: it’s quite social, and as much about context as content. That said, I am very excited to see the restorations of Born in Flames and Daughters of the Dust, and the first features by Margaret Salmon and Hope Dickson Leach, and Desperate Optimists’ Further Beyond, at the LFF. I’ve fallen in love with the work of American short filmmaker Jennifer Reeder over the last year, and Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong.
In poetry, what excites me here and now is the relation of new writing to editorial and curatorial projects: for the UK alone, Dorothy Lehane and Litmus, Sarah Crewe and aglimpseof, Andrea Brady and Archive of the Now, Theo Chiotis and Futures, Eleanor Perry, Juha Virtanen and Datableed. Nisha Ramayya, Eley Williams, Prudence Chamberlain and Generative Constraints. Sam Solomon, Joe Luna, Natalia Cecire and The Sussex Poetry Festival. And so many more. The inventive, joyous effervescence of creating alternative spaces for embodied, political poetics.